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Suspended Professor Awaits Verdict on Asylum Case

Accused of genocide, a Rwandan professor tells his side of the story.

Dr. Leopold Munyakazi

Last Dec. 10, an NBC news camera crew barged into Dr. Leopold Munyakazi’s French classroom at Goucher College accompanied by a Rwandan prosecutor. The reporters asked the professor how he responded to being charged with genocide in Rwanda.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the startled Munyakazi, 49, replied, refusing to say anything more.

A reporter and the prosecutor visited school authorities with two international arrest warrants and a 21-page indictment. That’s when Goucher suspended the visiting professor with pay.

On Feb. 3, Munyakazi was arrested for overstaying his visa. He was released with a monitoring device and is now awaiting a hearing before an immigration court judge to see if he will be allowed to stay in this country or be forced to leave.

While he waits, he was asked not to step foot on campus.

“The college placing Dr. Munyakazi on suspension is in no way condemning him, or justifying these allegations,” says Kristen Keener, director of media relations for Goucher College. The school was swamped with reporters and camera crews the week after the news broke, she says. But, they are serious allegations, and if someone is accused of killing people, they can’t be on campus with students, adds Keener.

“The tricky thing is, the documentation is coming from a country that’s in upheaval,” Keener adds. “Anybody who’s been outspoken or critical of the government in power could be charged with things that have no basis in truth. That’s where things get really complicated.”

Nearly a million people were killed in the widely reported genocide in Rwanda. Munyakazi says he participated in no way and calls himself a moderate Hutu that wanted peace. “I protected people,” he says, adding that he would never harm a Tutsi. “My wife is Tutsi,” he says.

Previously considered an “opponent” of the Rwandan government and jailed, the professor’s problems started anew after he gave talks in October 2006. A linguist, he proposed that “genocide” was the wrong word to describe the violence in Rwanda. He suggested that “fratricide” was a better word, because Rwandans are all one people — they weren’t trying to stamp out an entire ethnic group. “It was brothers killing brothers for political power,” he says. “We have the same culture, the same religion — they share everything. They constitute one people.”

The Rwandan government now accuses Munyakazi of trying to negate the genocide and also says he allegedly participated in it, killing many, many people. Giving talks in the United States, Munyakazi feels, made him a target. “As soon as that happened, it seemed like the Rwandan government went after him,” says Dr. Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education in a phone interview from Cairo. The organization runs the Scholar Rescue Fund, which placed Munyakazi at Goucher College, and is currently helping 25 other scholars from China to Zimbabwe, where they faced persecution and lacked intellectual freedom.

A variety of U.S. public and private universities and colleges are hosting these senior academics. Since 2002, 267 scholars from 40 countries have received fellowships similar to Munyakazi.

As soon as the news broke about the charges against Munyakazi, “we immediately began investigating,” Goodman says. “We have been unable to find any evidence to confirm a single thing in the Rwandan prosecutor’s document. I hope we’ll be able to put somebody into the field fairly soon so they might interview people. But, so far, we have found nothing to back up what the Rwandan document is claiming.”

Munyakazi keeps the Rwandan documents in a binder on his coffee table. The first arrest warrant, dated Nov. 10, 2006, charges Munyakazi with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and also negation of genocide — the latter because of a talk he gave on Oct. 25, 2006 at the University of Delaware where Munyakazi “rudely minimized” genocide in Rwanda, according to the documents.

The warrant says: “Dr. Munyakazi is responsible for a number of massacres and serious bodily and mental harm caused to members of the Tutsi.”

The second warrant, dated Sept. 18, 2008, lists seven charges, including: genocide; complicity in genocide; conspiracy to commit genocide; murder; extermination; formation; membership and leadership of people who participated in genocide; and negation of genocide.

“They are forging and fabricating false crimes,” Munyakazi tells Diverse.

On many of the charges detailed in the second warrant, Munyakazi had already been jailed in Rwanda but released after five years because, he says, the prosecutor could not find any evidence that he killed anyone. A former professor at the University of Rwanda, Munyakazi later became secretary general of the Federation for Rwandan Unions. His promotion of peace made him an opponent of the government, he says.

“I was considered an opponent,” he says. “The government did everything to force me to resign … Since it was wartime, I considered it wiser to just go away — there was serious risk of being killed.”

Munyakazi says that after the militia burned his house, his family went into hiding — criss-crossing the country and the neighboring Congo, hiding with friends and family.

After Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was executed in 1994, Munyakazi attended a reconstruction of Rwanda conference. He says intelligence agents asked him to testify about his experiences, and then arrested him. No one would tell him why he was arrested or what he was charged with. But he was incarcerated for five years.

He has a copy of the charges from when he was released. They are the same crimes he’s being charged with now: Genocide. “This has already happened,” he says. “They pretend it is a new case.”

“The reasons why he applied for asylum are real. They are not fabricated,” says Anastace Gasana, the former minister of foreign affairs for Rwanda and ambassador to the United Nations. Gasana says he has known Munyakazi almost 30 years, since they worked together at the University of Rwanda.

“They will kill him. That’s it … ,” says Gasana, who is now a refugee living in North Carolina. “When they get him. They will kill him. That’s for sure. He needs help.” Right now, Munyakazi sits in his house and waits for an asylum hearing before an immigration court judge.

“What can I do? I’m stuck here,” he says. “I can’t work. I can’t go to campus. I am a teacher. How can I get a position in education now in the middle of the year?” He stays in the house. He reads. He talks on his cell phone to friends. He hopes he’ll be granted asylum.

The thought of returning to his home country is unacceptable. He pulls up a blue, IZOD button down shirt he is wearing to show his stomach. “I have scars on my belly. Look,” he says, pointing to scars he received while in prison in Rwanda. “This is from hot nails. Hot nails.”

“I can’t go back there,” he says. “I can’t. No.” So what will he do now? He shrugs and says, “I wait.”

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